The Elite Apple Corps

The technical assistance counter, a.k.a. the Genius Bar, at the Clarendon Apple Store.
The technical assistance counter, a.k.a. the Genius Bar, at the Clarendon Apple Store. "Of all the places I worked, it was the place where I was most able to be myself," says Alex Frankel, who's written a book about his life as a front-line employee. (Photos By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 9, 2007

Whatever it is (Radio Shack for rich people? The Sharp -est Image?), the Apple Store isn't what it used to be, even a year or so ago. The initial thrills, the feelings of i-comfort and i-belonging, still await you behind its translucent facade, especially now, in the gizmodic spree of the Christmas season. But somewhere along the way, the zendo quality of the Apple Store changed.

The demi-privacy of it, the clubby feeling -- I know that you know that I know that we know and love Macs like nobody else does-- is fading away. Too much commotion. The ethereal, tranquil, spa vibe (the bath of white light, the polished concrete floors, the glint in the happy eyes of the geniuses at the Genius Bar) has been pierced by the sheer popularity of the place. The TV commercials worked. Mac Guy, even with his non-arrogant arrogance, is your real friend, and then he gathered too many friends, and suddenly he doesn't have time for them all.

Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO and bodhisattva, got what he wanted: the people. (A hundred million customers were lured to its stores in fiscal 2006-07, according to Apple, adding up to more than $4 billion in revenue.)

Apple shoppers are more than people, more than customers -- they are seekers. Those Apple marketing guys said all along they were building not just stores but serene communities of true believers and new converts. And so they did, and here we are, just 6 1/2 years later:

The Apple Store is the sound of very special toddlers yelling Daddeeee, Daddeeee as they are deposited in front of iMacs loaded up with wholesome video games in the shorty zone, while Daddeeee nabs a black T-shirted store employee to complain yet again about something not quite right with his iPhone.

Someone's precious terrier in a red sweater is barking on a recent Sunday afternoon in the Clarendon Apple Store, while eight different kinds of music blare from all those iPod stereo docks, which are being monopolized by the very same touch-don't-look customers who were once fond of cranking up the volume knobs in a Circuit City car audio department. The stores have upped the frenetic pace, skipping the cash registers altogether, zapping your purchases with handheld remotes, offering to print out a receipt if you're hopelessly wedded to something so paper, so tactile.

Or a Monday afternoon in the Apple Store on the second level of the Westfield Shoppingtown Montgomery mall, going at full Apple Store steam at 2 o'clock. People are talking loudly. The Apple TV ad plays over and over, a barrage of Bono and Coldplay and "Zoolander" and everything else that Apple's brain trust believes to be everyone's favorite song or movie. The MacBook and iMac screens glow with the purply-rose desktop image of Mac's new Leopard operating system.

A woman glumly sits on a stool, waiting for genius help. It's her MacBook, she sighs. It keeps crashing. You have to sign up for an appointment a day or two in advance now, or more. She's been here twice with the same issue. She still loves Apple. She loves the machine. She loves the feeling. But she dreads coming here again.

Later that night, Tysons Corner: You may have forgotten that this mall's Apple Store was one of the first two Apple Stores anywhere (the other was in Glendale, Calif.). The Tysons Apple Store opened in May 2001. It was 8,000 square feet of almost no product -- not even such a thing as an iPod yet. You could have roller-skated in it.

Tonight, it too finds itself in what has become a daily experience of controlled chaos. A specialist is walking a 50ish couple through the synchronization of their very i-lives to a 15-inch titanium-encased MacBook Pro. The wife takes notes on a yellow legal pad, and it pains her to interrupt -- "When that box keeps popping up and asking for his password, and I guess I shouldn't be typing it in all those times, I know that now," she stammers. She looks like she's taking notes on what the oncologist is saying, about the cancer, and whether it's spreading. She is hoping against hope for a cure.

Cured! Like that! You turn your head and they're gone! Happy but exhausted, off into the mall, back into the drab, linear PC-based world. They head one way, then another. This way? No, we're this way.

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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